Making value-chain decisions about sustainability requires moving beyond a simple grasp of peak oil, hybrids and carbon offsets.
According to top-level sustainability executives at some of the plastics industry's biggest customers, the new must-knows are alternative energy sources, future environmental regulations, and consumer lifestyle changes that will drive future original equipment manufacturers decisions about which suppliers they choose.
``What makes sense to [consumers] is that a smaller package saves them money. We are investing in moving forward, and we believe there will be a global movement toward less [packaging] in the near future and that those [OEMs] who do the right things will be rewarded by consumer dollars spent,'' said Kimberly Harvey, director of supply chain packaging and sustainability at Kellogg Co., during a panel discussion Sept. 10 at the Sustainable Packaging Forum in Denver.
Some in the packaging industry see their products as unfairly maligned by consumers seeking eco-friendly lifestyles.
``Packaging really isn't the fundamental driver in food service [waste]. It's really about the food part of the equation,'' said Harry Epstein, vice president of Havi Global Solutions, which manages supply chains for clients including McDonald's Corp., Coca-Cola Co. and Costco Wholesale Corp.
The speed with which sustainability has merged with green in the minds of consumers and industry alike has presented challenges, acknowledged Jeff Wooster, senior value chain manager at Dow Chemical Co.
``Some of the brand owners are actually viewing some of the sustainability benefits as a new opportunity to market and sell products. Historically [Dow has] been asked to come on and help the economics of their packaging materials but at the same time now, we're focusing on more of the sustainability and environmental impacts.''
The marketplace is a shifting sandpit of expectations, and standards, with no common solution to sustainability concerns, executives agreed. Mark Kitzis, global account vice president at Alcan Packaging, said in 2006, when Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s sustainable packaging scorecard was new, Wal-Mart's sustainability initiatives were a standard reference for OEMs. That has changed.
``Some are trying to meet Wal-Mart's requirements [but] with the economy where it's been, we've seen a lot of our customers moving away from some of the bio solutions because of the costs and instead focusing on reducing and resizing.''
That includes shrinking plant footprints, especially in energy consumption. John Kowal, global marketing manager for packaging automation machinery supplier Elau AG, said it's a simple cost- savings equation for many of the company's clients. ``When you get more efficiency out of a plant, all the way across, you're getting more products out the door for the same energy,'' he said. At the same time, reducing a plant's environmental impact is useful marketing, he said.
The sustainability panel included executives from some of the world's biggest plastic film buyers, including Kellogg, Frito-Lay North American Inc. and Sara Lee Corp. Brad Rodgers, Frito-Lay's manager of sustainable packaging and advanced material research, said his company is expanding its efforts with suppliers to include their suppliers, for a more cost-effective and earth-friendly approach all along the chain.
``We see that there's the possibility going further back in the stream and working not only with the converters, but the film suppliers [and] the resin suppliers. We can connect all the dots together, in a more efficient manner, then that's positive and we encourage that interaction.''
Panelists agreed sustainability has grown beyond the purview of starry-eyed environmentalists and bean-counting industry accountants to become a concept that companies will have to include as an integral part of their operations.
``It's like a product life cycle that starts out in its infancy and as it matures, you analyze what it's going to look like,'' said Brian Wagner, a principal at management consulting firm Packaging and Technology Integrated Solutions LLC.
He said manufacturers should follow international agreements on reducing packaging and waste closely as they chart their sustainability courses.